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Region braces for West Nile



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With miles of fertile farmland and sprawling wetlands, the San Joaquin Valley could one day make a fine home for the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. County officials say it's only a matter of time.

Last year, 246 people died from the infectious disease that swept through the central and southern United States.

And now it has come west, recently turning up in the remains of birds in Bakersfield and Carson City.

But at a time when local officials say mosquito abatement districts should be stepping up efforts to stop the spread of the deadly disease, many are cutting back, a result of the unresolved budget crisis at the state level.

In the Turlock Mosquito Abatement District, which includes the southern half of Stanislaus County, officials are bracing for a possible 25 percent reduction in property tax revenue for the next fiscal year by pushing back the purchase of two spraying trucks and delaying improvements to the district's Washington Road facility in Turlock.

District manager Jerry Davis said his department will have to dip into a $1 million emergency reserve fund this year to keep services at their current level. In the event of a West Nile breakout, Davis said, the department also may tap property owners within the district to boost its projected $1.2 million budget for 2004-05.

Special tax mulled

District residents approved a property tax spike in 1982 to increase funding for mosquito eradication. But Davis said the department hasn't needed to raise taxes since 1997-98, when it generated $154,000 to offset budget cutbacks.

"We've been frugal in the past and tried to protect taxpayers," Davis said. "We don't like having to implement the special tax, but it's certainly something we may have to consider."

Lloyd Douglass, manager of the East Side Mosquito Abatement District, which includes Modesto and the northern half of Stanislaus County, said his department is cutting costs by not purchasing new spraying trucks.

In the event of a West Nile breakout, Douglass said, he's concerned his staff of six full-time and four part-time employees will be overrun with phone calls.

"I hear that some districts down south are getting up to 1,500 calls a day pertaining to West Nile," Douglass said. "I don't have the staffing for that."

Merced County Mosquito Abatement District manager Allan Inman is bracing for a more dire situation in his region, which he says had the "ideal" setting for a West Nile outbreak.

"Merced County has a unique blend of habitat, dairies, wetlands and urban settings," Inman said. "Everything comes together and we're already stretched to the limit."

Inman said his district already has reduced hours for some staff and implemented a hiring freeze, hoping to offset a pro-jected $300,000 reduction in its $1.8 million budget.

The district board also has approved scaling back pesticide use and shifting focus to eradicate only those mosquitoes that may carry diseases.

PR 'nightmare' possible

But Inman concedes that by doing so, it could create a "public relations nightmare."

"How does the public know which mosquitoes are simply a nuisance and which carry disease?" Inman asked. "That's a good question. We can give them generalities and likelihoods, but that's about it."

For starters, Inman said disease-carrying mosquitoes typically bite only at night. Those that bite during the day aren't considered dangerous.

Disease-carrying mosquitoes also have a blunt abdomen, while the abdomen on others is pointed, Inman said.

In a letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger and other state officials in May, Inman estimated the cost of a West Nile outbreak in Merced County at $3.2 million.

"It defies logic that the governor's plan calls for these cuts at a time when we need more funding," Inman said.

Unlike the Turlock district, Merced doesn't have a reserve account to draw from. Inman said his district, which bought a twin-engine plane from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection two years ago, has committed its reserve to building a hangar for its three planes on a 41-acre site off Highway 152 between Dos Palos and Los Banos.

Bee staff writer Joel Hood can be reached at 238-4574 or jhood@modbee.com.

For more coverage from The Modesto Bee, or to start home delivery, go to http://www.modbee.com.

©2004 The Modesto Bee. All Rights Reserved.

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